Samsung Chromebook

Initial Impression

Model

I bought the Samsung Chromebook Series 3 model released in October of 2012. This model retails for $249. It has 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of storage and runs on a dual-core 1.7 GHz Exynos 5200 ARM processor.

Build

The Samsung Chromebook is not a MacBook, most notably because it's made from plastic. From a distance it may look like a MacBook Air, but it's not. That's not necessarily a criticism of the device. It's just fact. The whole thing (at least externally) is made from a lightweight plastic. If you've ever seen a MacBook that's taken fall you know they deform. I doubt this thing deforms. My guess is pieces just break off. I suppose if replacement parts were easily obtainable it wouldn't be too big of a deal.

Screen

The screen is matte. It's funny that I now notice that. When I traded in my TiBook for a MacBook Pro I wasn't sure I'd like or be able to accommodate myself to a super-bright, glossy screen. Now I find matte a screen dull and subdued. On the whole I find the screen usable.

I'm typing this review in Emacs (over ssh). The letters aren't quite crisp but they're very legible.

The Chromebook has the same 1366x768 resolution as the MacBook Air and is 11.6" across.

The Samsung Chromebook has a standard HDMI adapter for connecting to external screens. I used it with my 46" Samsung TV. We watched a streaming movie on it at what looked like 720p (I think that was due to the site and not the Chromebook.) I would have preferred a DisplayPort like the Chromebook 550 but the HDMI works well enough but it does mean yet another adapter to tote around.

Keyboard

The keyboard is similar to that of a MacBook...flat, well-spaced keys. It's not as solid feeling as the MBP keyboard, but it feels pretty good.

If you haven't seen a Chromebook you may be taken aback to learn there are no function keys, at least the keys in that location aren't the typical F1 - F12 keys. Google have taken a play from Apple's book and given them primary functions related to volume, screen brightness, power and other functions. There's just not "Fn" option to revert them to standard "PC" function keys. For me that's not a loss. I haven't used function keys in a decade or longer.

Interestingly, the keyboard has no caps lock. If you're an Emacs user don't get too excited. It's not a control key. It's a dedicated Search key that pulls up a list of results as you type search criteria. It returns results for both local and internet queries.

The two keys at the bottom left are control and alt. The upside is you can remap Search, Control and Alt to one of the other three functions. The Control and Alt keys are very large; larger even than a shift key. I wish Google had added an Option key or something similar.

Trackpad

The trackpad is largish but not as big as what you find on a 13" MacBook Pro. (I don't know how it compares with a MacBook Pro). It has at least two multi-touch gestures: two-finger scrolling and two-finger tap for context menu. It also supports tap to click in addition to press to click.

Battery Life

I haven't pressed the device too hard on battery life but on it's first outing I took it with me to work and left it running all day. I used it for the odd search, reading email and keeping up with work topics. After a solid 8 and 1/2 hours I took it home and used it to stream the movie mentioned above. Batter life was down to about an hour and 15 minutes. I didn't notice we had selected a two-hour long episode. The Chromebook shutdown (suspended) about half-way through.

So far I'd rate battery life as quite good.

Ports

The Samsung Chromebook has two USB ports: 1 USB 2.0 and 1 USB 3.0; 1 HDMI out connector; an SD-card slot; headphone jack and of course a power-adapter port. Not exceptional but not bad either. USB 3.0 is a nice surprise. Both USB ports, the HDMI port and power port are on the back. The SD-card slot is on the left side of the keyboard.

The SD-card slot has a hinged cover. I don't think an SD-card will insert deeply enough to let allow one to close the cover.

There's also another covered slot on the back. It's for access to the SIM-card enabled models. (Mine is not SIM-card enabled.)

Connectivity

The Chromebook is wireless only, at least as far as built-in options go. I plugged a no-name USB ethernet adapter in and it lit up. The Chromebook connected to the wired network without problem and shutoff the wifi.

It might sound odd to want wired internet for a light-weight laptop but for large file transfers it's a nice to know it's an option.

Memory and Storage

As noted above, this Chromebook has 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of built-in storage. I note "built-in" because it also comes with 2-years of an additional 100 GB storage on Google Drive.

For a lot of people RAM and storage are a deal breaker for the Chromebooks in general and the Samsung 3 series in particular.

Storage

I've only started using the device so I can't say whether 16GB of storage is a limitation. On Android devices the OS intelligently caches documents (I believe). That doesn't do you much good when you're offline and need a document you haven't looked at recently but it won't slow you down when creating documents. ChromeOS now supports offline applications. The Google Drive apps (word processing and spreadsheets) work offline.

As a software developer I'm hoping for a different approach: running Emacs in a terminal. I'll write-up my results when I know whether it's possible.

RAM

2 GBs of RAM are my more pressing concern. I've read on forums I may be limited to ~12 tabs (depending on content). For a person who's had as many as 300 tabs open across multiple windows that could be a problem. That said, I've been trying to ween myself from my memory-profligate ways by using more bookmarks and the excellent Zotero plugin for tracking interesting topics.

Still, 2 GBs may prove limiting for a developer. I don't plan to use the Chromebook as an integrated development platform, but I would like to be able to edit files and write blog posts offline.

Camera

The Samsung Chromebook has a camera. I haven't tried other than to look at myself in the video-chat window. It seems passable.

Speakers

The Chromebook has speakers. Compared to my 13" MacBook Pro, they sound a bit hollow. The headphone jack is probably the better choice for extended listening.

Verdict

The Samsung Chromebook is good for $249. It's not a knock-it-out-of-the-park winner but it passes muster. I'll post my thoughts about the software later.